Thursday, October 17, 2013

On Atiu - In which I go caving and discover I am only a hobbit after all

When we got off the Bandit at Atiu airport we were greeted by an amusing sign:

So we handed in our weapons and were given the usual beautiful fragrant ei and welcomed hugely.

Atiu has a population of something just south of 500. Similar to Mauke, the villages cluster around the centre and the outer rim consists of makatea, which is fossilised coral sometimes making formations the height of doorways. We were here to see the kopeka, the Atiu swiftlet. The kopeka is endemic to Atiu. It is unique in that it uses its eyes in the light, and echolocation in the cave where it lives. We went caving to see them.

We walked across the makatea, which is treacherous stuff. It is sharp and has sudden crevices, and you need good boots. We were given ironwood staffs. I liked mine a lot and I was Gandalf and said You Shall Not Pass a few times until someone told me I was only a hobbit. i have always liked caves and this one was characterised by amazing banyan tree roots which penetrate the roof of the cave and then drive straight down to the floor, just one long tough root after another. The kopeka themselves were magical. It was nesting time, and they were feeding their young. We could hear them twitter as the flew into the mouth of the cave, and then begin echolocating with audible clicking sounds. They would call to their babies who would respond, and each bird would find each baby. Like bats. With torches off, in the dark, the clicking was too loud for speech. Then some of us who were brave swam in the underground pool. The water was soft and warm; i was swimming in it and drinking it.

On the way back we attended a tumunu, or drinking session with local men. Traditionally this is a council meeting/piss up for the local men but tourists are allowed for $5. They pass around a wooden bowl with 'orange beer' in it which is neither orange nor beer. It is a fairly sedate affair. i suspect as soon as the tourists leave the bowl gets a lot bigger.

We stayed in a home stay with a guy called Marshall. Each night was a dinner party. We had hot water for the first time in the Cook Islands. Marshall was very knowledgeable about Atiu, and all sorts of things for that matter.

On Sunday we went to church. There were ten of us tourists on the island and eight of us went to church. The couple who didn't had their absence duly noted. The Cook Island Christian Church has had difficult time recently with some scandal and some defection to other denominations. Everyone in the Cooks is Christian, except there is a small Baha'i community. So there were about seventy people present and eight tourists. i can tell you that the CICC is the only place in the world where a man can wear a white suit and not look like a 1980's gigolo (much). And the singing would lift the roof - you have never heard Once in Royal David's City like that before, close close harmony and LOUD. i listened and hummed along and thought that whoever we are, when we reach for the highest, we get there.

On Friday night we hung out in town, by which i mean the Super Brown store. We got a decent burger and watched the jeunesse doree of Atiu rock up on their motor scooters. The dogs of Atiu, who lie around all day, mobilised themselves and form excitable packs. Like teenagers, they become suddenly preoccupied with something wonderful and go racing down the street. A pack rushed past us, but one ungainly little short legged fellow couldn't keep up. i have a thing for ungainly little short legged creatures so i gave him my meat from the burger. Now i have a friend i can stay with on my return to Atiu.

There were more exquisite bejewelled coves with crystal sea and coral sand, and a million tiny hermit crabs. We saw where Captain Cook arrived and sent his men to treat with the people of Atiu, who were then known for their ferocity. And we saw hump backed whales from the beach. A mother and her new calf processed just a few metres out, just rising and dipping in the sea, just cruising around the island where they come to give birth. i fancied these were whales i had seen near Brisbane. It is certainly the same migration. One of the women i was with said to me, I am an atheist, in fact when I told my daughter I had been to church here she asked, did the church catch fire? But seeing these whales I feel - blessed.

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